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21st-Century Bintel Brief


The Jewish Daily Forward, the most widely read newspaper in the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century, ran a famous advice column for many years; “A Bintel Brief”, or “A Bundle of Letters,” helped new immigrants navigate through their new lives in America, dealing with everything from love to loss to how to learn English and learn American customs. While the Forward’s Bintel Brief may be no more, people on the Lower East Side still need some advice now and then. Tenement Museum Staffers asked one of our sagest coworkers for a little help. Below are real problems from real Tenement Museum Staffers, and real answers:

Dear Bintel Brief,

I am a mother with three children living in New York City. In 1900, I understand that children contributed up to 30% of their family’s income, but in my case the children seem to be sucking out at least twice that much!

Seriously, my husband and I could be living like the 1% but for having to buy 4 boxes of organic milk every week ($7 each!), 20 organic bananas ($5 per bunch!), 15 organic apples ($5 for 3!), 6 cartons of free-range, DHA-enhanced, organic eggs ($7 each!), and much, much more! Never mind educational enrichment activities like German-language guitar lessons, sushi-making classes, and yoga for tots.

How can I get my children (ages 7, 4, and 12 months) to contribute more to our family economy? What kinds of work can they do that will be legal? And in the meantime, should I ask my boss for a big raise?

Yours truly,
Sucked dry by my ungrateful children

Dear Striving Mother,

Oh, if only our modern times were able to recognize aspirations as worthy as yours!  What confidence we could have in the next generation if everyone wanted only the best in consumer products, locovore diet, and enrichment experiences for their children!  You seem to have done everything for them short of a trip to Disneyworld!

I do worry, though, that you are willing to consider child labor for children so young.  Put toddlers to work in sweatshops and next you’ll be cutting nutritional corners by serving them swill milk—or even having them rush the growler at the downstairs beer hall!  Be aware that little of the beer served locally meets USDA standards for organic production.

By the way, I do think that some of the merchants you patronize may be taking advantage of you with their high prices.  Have you thought of joining one of Brooklyn’s finer food coops?

Your impressed and concerned editor

This mother wishes she hadn't even read that article about new pram models in the New York Times. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Help Bintel Brief!

I live with three roommates in a two bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. As you can imagine, four people in a two bedroom apartment can get a little cramped, but most of the time it’s manageable. Most of the time.

The only real problem is the shower line in the morning. Whenever I get to the shower first, I feel like my roommates are angry at me for making them late for work, but when they beat me to it, I’m angry at them! We’ve talked to our landlord and asked for another shower – the landlord just laughed and hung up the phone.

Should I continue evoking the ire of my roommates or continue to come to work unshowered (I think my desk mate might not appreciate that)?!

Thank you,
Stinky Coworker

Dear Stinky,

Your problem is actually a simple one.  You seem capable of getting to the shower before your roommates but worry that your roommates will think ill of you for hogging your apartment’s limited amenities.  This—and your desire not to offend your desk mate—shows commendable consideration for your fellow creatures.  You have wonderful personal qualities!  

Consider waking up earlier than your roommates and showering before they stir.  This might require you to retire earlier in the evening, a small price to pay for staying in their good graces.  You might even be able to save money by cutting back on your late night activities.  Who knows but that these savings, applied judiciously, might allow you to buy your own apartment or open your own firm?

Your respectful editor 

These boys know the value of good, clean fun. Running water wasn't added to the tenements at 97 Orchard till around 1895 and even then the poor water pressure on the upper floors would have made washing difficult. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dear Bintel Brief,

I live in an old tenement building in Manhattan. One of my neighbors, I don’t even know which, plays loud music at all hours of the night while I am trying to get my beauty rest. I have tried yelling through the airshaft, banging on the walls and ceiling with a broom, and making a noise complaint. I even called the police once, but since I don’t know who it is playing the music, there isn’t much I can do. Help me!

No Rest for the Weary

Dear Weary,

You describe a difficult situation, one too common in the hard circumstances of tenement life.  I sympathize with your desperation.  Yet what sometimes seems a distraction may actually be a message.  You write that you are unable to get your beauty rest; but you may already be beautiful enough!  Why not enjoy what you already have—and enjoy the music as well.

Your tired editor

And you think the neighbor's ihome was loud... This photo actually shows the Edison Home Phonograph probably being used at the Metropolitan Opera House in around 1901. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Dear Bintel Brief,

How do I really get my management company to fix something? They have repeatedly done shoddy repairs on a leaking bathroom ceiling. Now there are new cracks and black/brown residue. Is there some language I could use that would make them take me seriously?

Disgruntled Tenant

Dear Disgruntled,

Your letter is a reminder of how misguided was the Tenement House Law of 1901; the very thought of moving privies into homes—where they sit over your head!—is as repugnant today as it was when the state adopted the law in 1901.  But the law is the law, and we must obey it.

You ask about what language would make your landlord take you seriously.  Have you considered Yiddish?  The language is colorful enough to describe any stains—and its hundreds of expressions of complaint may tire your landlord into acquiescence.

Your sympathetic editor

If your management company is unresponsive you could always attempt to feel better through comparison. This photo was taken by inspectors of the New York City Tenement House Department in 1935. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

To learn more about the history of the “Bintel Brief” and to hear about how  the briefs inspired artist Liana Finck’s graphic novel join us at the Tenement Talk Tuesday, May 27 at 6:30 PM.

– Posted by Lib Tietjen, Julia Berick, and the Tenement Museum Staff